Mexican journalist seeks answers after attack

Karla Silva was beaten at the Heraldo office in central Mexico last year. Did the mayor of Silao order the assault?

Karla Silva on Sept. 4, 2014, the day of her attack in the Heraldo office.
Miguel Ramírez / El Heraldo de León

SILAO, Mexico — Karla Silva carries her backpack like a college student, with a camera slung over her shoulder and a pen buried in her hair bun. She stands in front of the bus terminal, looking down at an old Blackberry phone with a cracked screen held together by plastic tape.

After the briefest of introductions, she reaches for an extra helmet she keeps stored under the seat of her motor scooter and tosses it over.

“You wanted a day in the life. Let’s get going.”

Silva is the Silao correspondent for El Heraldo de León, the newspaper of record in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. She is 25 years old and was born and raised in Silao. This is her first reporting job. The learning curve has been much steeper than anticipated. On Sept. 4, 2014, at the end of her first year on staff, she was brutally assaulted at her desk in the newspaper’s tiny two-person office.

Photographs taken right after the assault show a bloodied and dazed-looking Silva, her forehead gashed, her face streaked with blood, her blouse tied into a sling to support her arm. She had cerebral swelling and blurred vision; a medical examiner counted 14 separate injuries.

That afternoon, around 5:15, two men — one tall and thin, the other burly and strong — barged into the office. A third man stood outside the door as lookout. The thin man pointed a knife at the receptionist’s throat while the burly one rushed straight at Silva at her desk, her neck crooked against a telephone handset as she spoke with her editor in León. “The one who hit me, he shouts, ‘Karla!’ And I look up, and the second I look up, it was like this,” she said, bringing her fist to rest against her forehead.

The punch knocked her backward, out of her chair and against a wall. In spite of the shock — or perhaps because of it — she managed to ask him why he punched her. He answered in a torrent of threats, obscenities, more punches and kicks and screamed at her to soften the tone of her articles or he would kill her.

Silva, who is about 5 foot 2 and weighs under 100 pounds, now has an inch-long crescent-shaped scar on the right side of her forehead. This came from the second punch, which split the skin down to her skull.

In the aftermath of the attack, footage was recovered from a security camera on the street. It showed that the assailants were dropped off near her office by a municipal police truck. 

No safe place for journalists

Mexico was the seventh-most-dangerous country in the world for journalists in 2014, one notch behind Afghanistan and two behind Syria, according to a report by the New York City–based Committee to Protect Journalists. Ninety percent of violent crimes targeting journalists in Mexico go unsolved.

In the past 15 years, 87 journalists have been murdered in Mexico, according to Article 19, a London-based human rights organization. Six Mexican journalists have been murdered so far this year, including two in the first week of July. In 2014 alone, Article 19 reported 142 physical attacks on journalists in Mexico and an additional 184 threats.

Silva in court on Sept. 13, 2014.
Crónica Gto

Public servants at various levels of government in Mexico were linked to nearly half the attacks, according to a 2015 report by Article 19. “Of all the attacks on record,” the report reads, “public servants were found responsible in 48 percent of cases, making them the primary aggressors against the press in 2014." Only 2 percent of assaults were carried out at the behest of members of organized crime.

Threats against journalists are an old problem in Mexico, but in recent years there have been new efforts to address them. In 2012, the Mexican Congress passed a constitutional amendment that made attacking journalists a federal crime. After that, federal prosecutors were legally able to prevent local authorities from obstructing investigations. The following year, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a law that went a step further, compelling prosecutors to investigate and prosecute crimes against journalists at the federal level if any of nine criteria are met. Criterion No. 1 is if a government official is implicated in an attack.

The 2013 reform transformed what had been a feeble special prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists — a division of the Mexican Attorney General’s Office with an annual budget of $230,000 — into the more robust special prosecutor’s office for crimes against the freedom of expression (or FEADLE, its Spanish acronym), with a broader mandate and a budget more than 10 times its previous incarnation’s.

In spite of these reforms, violence against journalists is occurring with greater frequency. In the first year after the reforms took effect, assaults against journalists in Mexico increased from 207 to 330. In the second year of the reforms, 2014, there were 326 attacks.

Two days after Silva was beaten and bloodied in her office in Silao, investigators from FEADLE arrived at her house to take a statement. Before they left, they pledged to investigate and follow up. “And that was the last I heard from them,” she said. Six months later, on March 6 of this year, Silva received a notice from FEADLE saying that the office would not be asserting federal jurisdiction over her case and that proceedings would be conducted in Guanajuato’s criminal justice system.

‘[Officials at the special prosecutor’s office] limit themselves to opening a file, and they hardly ever get any results or arrive at any conclusion.’

Paulina Gutiérrez

attorney with Article 19

Through a spokesman, the chief prosecutor at FEADLE, Laura Borbolla, declined a phone interview with Al Jazeera America. In response to an email query, Borbolla wrote that if her office investigated or prosecuted the Silva case, it would constitute double jeopardy. That state criminal proceedings were underway in Guanajuato prevented federal prosecutors from stepping in and, she said, trumped the presidential mandate.

Carlos Lauría, the senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, objected to FEADLE’s response, calling it “really a deplorable decision.” Critics who study the issue say it has become standard practice for FEADLE to defer to local authorities in matters of jurisdiction. A 2015 report by Freedom House notes FEADLE is “hesitant to assert its jurisdiction over such crimes … without state officials’ approval.” Even with its mandate, budget and personnel, FEADLE lacks the political will to act, according to attorney Paulina Gutiérrez with Article 19 in Mexico, who represents Silva. “Very rarely do they take over the case,” Gutiérrez said. “They limit themselves to opening a file, and they hardly ever get any results or arrive at any conclusion that establishes the guilt of those responsible.”

Only 1 in 10 FEADLE investigations ends up before a judge, and Freedom House has observed that the special prosecutor’s office “has closed several high-profile cases without resolution and neglected pending arrest warrants.”

Silva was the first journalist in Guanajuato to report an assault, but she was not the last to be attacked. On June 26, the director of Guanajuato’s weekly newspaper El Tábano was murdered after reportedly receiving death threats. 

Back on the beat

Silva zips through the busy streets of downtown Silao with a schedule to keep. The editors of El Heraldo demand at least five news stories a day from her, not including police stories about car crashes or violence.

A recent count by the state Human Rights Commission found that half the articles Silva wrote during her first year as a reporter touched on topics related to the public administration of Silao. She covered the increase in crime, misspent public funds and lack of government oversight. She did a story on the travel photos that Mayor Benjamín Solís Arzola posted on the City Hall website — images of him and his wife on taxpayer-funded trips that hadn’t been approved by the city council. She reported on how Solís, a devout Catholic, waged a losing battle to shutter a popular nightclub in town, covering the story through to the mayor’s embarrassing final defeat in court.

Silva after the attack last year.
Miguel Ramírez / El Heraldo de León

This morning Silva has to report on a ceremony at Bicentennial Park, 15 minutes east of town. She drops off her scooter at the volunteer fire department and sees a sedan waiting at the curb. Her father releases a strong square hand from the wheel and extends it in greeting. Across the street, a state police escort makes a U-turn and falls in behind. “How does it feel to be followed?” she asks. The vehicles drive toward the scraggly brown peak of Mount Cristo Rey before arriving at the park. She goes in, but her father waits outside.

In the police truck, two officers around Silva’s age look at her with blank expressions.

One offers to escort Silva into the fair. “I’ll be fine,” she says. She adds with no discernible trace of irony, “There will be plenty of people from the government inside.”

At the event, Silva observes smiling local officials inaugurate an exhibit of Catholic art. The mayor was supposed to be among them, but he is nowhere to be seen.

Solís was elected about a year before Silva started covering City Hall for El Heraldo. He is an anomaly in Silao. A former public notary, he was elected as the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate in a city that has traditionally been a stronghold of the National Action Party (PAN). When he was elected in 2012, voters were tired of PAN rule and the costly military offensive on drug cartels that PAN’s President Felipe Calderón had been waging since 2006. Solís appealed because he was an unknown, a political novice, somebody who had not burned any bridges.

The mayor took an immediate dislike to Silva’s reporting. “It was like he was elected expecting flattery,” she said. Silva described El Heraldo de León as “the only media outlet that writes critically about City Hall” and said her attacks against Solís were never personal. “As I have told him to his face, I never criticized him. I’m not a columnist. I write down what people say, what I read in a document or what I observe when I’m out reporting. And it’s based on evidence, not on my opinion.”

By late July 2014, Solís was making himself scarce, refusing Silva’s interview requests and raising his voice over her objections. In one instance, he scolded her publicly in front of the entire press corps, calling her a niñita (little girl) and questioning her intelligence.

Silva put these unpleasant experiences out of her mind. It was only a few days after her public reprimand when she noticed she was being followed by local boys on motorcycles. She has lived in Silao most of her life and no one had ever bothered her before.

‘I told [investigators] the only man in Silao who might want to hurt me is the mayor.’

Karla Silva

One afternoon, a motorcyclist sat astride his bike in front of the Heraldo office, deliberately blocking in her scooter. Another day, she went to take photos for a story and three boys on motorcycles followed her. She ran into them again one night around the corner from her parents’ house. “I was terrified. I was shaking. But I was with my sister, and I hit the gas on my scooter, and we took off for home.” These kinds of encounters happened once or twice a week. The boys had shaved heads or spiked hair and wore loose-fitting clothes and sunglasses at night. One afternoon they chased her across a freeway overpass and she hid behind a greenhouse.

This continued until the last Sunday in August, when there was a knock on the door of her office. It was after hours, the receptionist had left for the night, and Silva was alone working on deadline. She peeked out the window and heard three men asking to speak with “the reporter Karina.” “I just said, ‘She’s not here,’ and they went away.”

Only one person in Silao called her Karina: Jorge Alejandro Fonseca Durán, the mayor’s director of police operations. He always called her by the wrong name, and eventually she tired of correcting him. Silva decided to report the unsettling visit to him directly. She said, “He answers with ‘Hi Karina, how are you?’ And the men were looking for me thinking my name was Karina. So I said to him, ‘Excuse me, officer, this is Karla from El Heraldo.’”

Four days later, the men returned when the office door was unlocked. This time, the man who beat her called her Karla.

Silva went to the state prosecutor’s office in Silao to report the incident. During questioning, investigators wanted to know whether she was married or if she had a jealous boyfriend. “I told them the only man in Silao who might want to hurt me is the mayor,” she said.

Seeking justice

Within days of the Sept. 4 attack, the lookout and the thin man were taken into custody, and three weeks later, the third alleged assailant was as well. All were in their 20s with prior convictions for drug-related crimes. By the end of the month, state investigators had arrested Fonseca, the director of police operations, and the state attorney general had accused Nicasio Aguirre Guerrero, the mayor's director of public safety, of organizing and planning the attacks. Aguirre, however, was never apprehended — he fled Silao the night before a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he remains a fugitive.

The assault on Karla Silva led the news in Mexico for three weeks in September then tapered off when 43 college student activists disappeared in the southern state of Guerrero. The Silva case did not return to the public eye until April, when the state prosecutor revealed shocking details from a statement by Luis Gerardo Hernández Valdenegro, the lookout during the attack. As part of a plea deal that let him off with a suspended sentence and a small fine, Hernández told investigators that Aguirre hired him to assault Silva, and that Aguirre’s orders came from “his honor, the mayor.” The attack, Hernández said, was intended to “send a clear message” to Silva “to lower the tone of her reporting.”

Silva testifying on Sept. 13, 2014, about the attack.
Crónica Gto

The same day that statement was made public, Solís participated in a welcoming committee for President Peña Nieto, who leads Solís’ party and was visiting Guanajuato to inaugurate a highway expansion. Although the unsavory claims against the mayor renewed national interest in the story, Peña Nieto still singled Solís out for thanks, and the two were photographed walking close together in a public procession.

Two days after the statement was released, the judge presiding over the case dismissed Silva's journalism as a possible reason for the attack and charged the two remaining men with basic assault. They confessed and were released on suspended sentences. Both were ordered to perform community service and were fined $150.

On May 22, Hernández was shot in the trachea by an unknown assailant. He recovered from his injuries and appeared in court several weeks later, testifying that Aguirre offered $350 to each of the three men to attack Silva and “help from above” if they ran into legal trouble. Hernández said he was present when Solís phoned Aguirre to ensure that Hernández had the “courage” to do what needed to be done with Silva, and Hernández noted that he had been in the police truck with Fonseca when Silva called to report the attack. The police director, he said, made faces as he feigned surprise and concern.

All these allegations appeared to confirm what local and national media had been speculating about for months: that Solís was behind Silva’s assault. 

Moving forward

Silva is appealing the decision of the special prosecutor for crimes against the freedom of expression not to take over the investigation into her assault. In March she took a day off work and went with her attorney to examine the special prosecutor’s case file in Mexico City. The federal file was little more than a sheaf of photocopies of state investigation papers from Guanajuato. “They hadn’t filed a single report on the assault or any of the statements incriminating the mayor and officials in the municipal police,” said Gutiérrez.

Under state law in Guanajuato, a mayor is immune from prosecution while in office. There are ways for state courts to strip him of his immunity, but those have not been pursued — and despite growing suspicion, state prosecutors did not so much as take a statement from Solís. For his part, Solís has denied he had any role in the attack. “To me, it is a deplorable act which I reject,” he said last September, noting that he found the incident especially egregious because “it involves a female media correspondent.” When asked to comment on rumors that he had been involved, Solís said simply, “I ignore [them].” The closest that any government agency has gotten to investigating Solís was last fall, when the state Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into Silva’s case. In November the commission recommended that Solís punish any official in his government caught obstructing the investigation and suggested he issue a public apology to Silva.

Solís waited until the close of the business day one Friday to make his apology. Silva learned about it when reporters asked her for comment.

More than 10 months after the assault, Silva’s doctors worry that the blurred vision she has suffered since may be permanent. With her case in limbo, she makes light of how her 12-hour workdays are spent covering an elected official who she believes ordered her assault and got away with it. She has no plans to leave El Heraldo. Her 24-hour police protection will continue indefinitely. Solís’ last day in office is Oct. 9.

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